When things get to be a little too much – too many people on the subway platform, too many loads of laundry yet undone, too many things racing around my head – I’ve taken to putting on a song I first heard in one of my yoga classes, Bachan Kaur’s “Bountiful, Blissful, Beautiful.” The text comes from one of the English-language mantras that we use in kundalini yoga classes: “I am bountiful. I am blissful. I am beautiful. I am.” It has that perfect combination of meaning and non-meaning that defines the mantras that work best for me. It repeats and repeats for 14 minutes and 16 seconds –- much of kundalini is about holding on — with a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment.
In class I find this mantra a little uncomfortable to sing. There’s something about all the “I”s that feels a little unseemly. As Bachan Kaur sings, the backing vocals sing a steady stream of “I am I am I am I am I am.” It can make me feel a bit like a three year old demanding attention. And also, it is surprisingly hard to say nice things about yourself, even when scripted.
And yet when overwhelmed, this seems to be exactly what I need: a reminder that I am part of it, that I am still here, that I know where I am in relation to the chaos swirling around me. It’s the first step in regaining control.
I think it’s no coincidence that I’ve started writing about music here again this week. It’s my refuge and my buttress (I put that “butt” in just for you, freshhell and joybells).
Kaur’s arrangement of this mantra is very simple and spare. And it’s far from perfect. It’s a lovely voice, but it’s also a real voice. You hear it crack. You hear her drop the rhythm to clear her throat or catch her breath, but the pulse never falters. The guitar is a little out of tune, but the guitar and backing voices keep steadily on. There is a saying in kundalini: “Keep up and you will be kept up.” This is what it means. Anything you do together has the strength of numbers. It’s a different take on the idea of helping others and being helped yourself. The difference is that “others” is a category that doesn’t apply here. In this philosophy, we are all a part of the same. The imperfections are universal and shared. They combine in one voice (literally, here, I think, as it sounds like Bachan has overdubbed her own voice for the backing vocals. It is not a case of being as strong as the weakest link. Instead we are as weak as the strongest.
So in saying “I am,” you are actually saying “we are.” It is all the same. And this makes me uncomfortable too, because it gets at things that both feel right to me but that also mess with my logical, rational, analytical brain. Even so, I feel the need to qualify everything I write about this: “In this philosophy.” Is it my philosophy? I’m not sure. But it does something for me. About a third of the way through the song, Kaur alters the mantra: “You are bountiful, blissful and beautiful. You are.” And then “We are bountiful, blissful and beautiful. We are.” It sounds exactly the same except for the words. It is still about self, but the very idea of selfness is expanding.
At the end of the song, the mantra changes again: “Love is bountiful, blissful and beautiful, love is.” The first time I heard this in class, I started to cry, not from sadness or joy but pure catharsis. As a musician and scholar who puts much more stock in rational thought than anything that borders on magical thinking, I think of mantra as sound and also as social behavior. Chanting in a group puts you in tune with the members of the group in really interesting ways. You become highly attuned to individual variations. It is less about the sounds you make than the people you make them with. You feel the group adapt to itself. When you practice week after week with the same people, as I have, you get to know those voices well, to internalize them. You can feel when something’s off – with them or with you. It’s extremely powerful and intimate. Chanting for the first time with someone feels naked.
“Love is love is love is love is love is” chant the backing vocals. At the very end of the song, the backing vocals drop out and we are left with Bachan chanting the backing chorus of “love is,” with no more melody. The mantra has been refined to its essence. The song is a 14 minute journey to a new perspective. And yet audibly, we’re back where we started. We’ve never really left. This is the simplest of songs, one that doesn’t hold up to critical analysis. And yet, for me and for others who chant along, there is something powerful there too. Maybe because it gives you space to do the work. The music gets out of the way. It is just distracting enough.
I used to think mantra was about losing yourself in the sound of the words, that the meaning didn’t matter. In kundalini, most of the mantras we chant are in Punjabi. We have to trust our teachers to pass on the meaning, but the words have no particular meaning to me. In the teachings of kundalini, that is okay. The words have certain vibrations which you can sense even if you don’t understand them. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I accept it and chant the words. I like the sound of them. They feel good to say. But the meaning gives you something to turn over in your head as your body makes the sounds of the words, something to keep the brain engaged. And something happens when you chant words over and over again. You start to believe them. What feels awkward at the beginning of the song feels natural at the end.